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Trump and Clinton: National versus Global Perspectives

6 Nov

 

 

It is not often that Medea Benjamin, the charismatic founder of Code Pink, offers us her insight into a troublesome American reality that is almost simultaneously confirmed by the New York Times, the virtual bible for secular liberals in the United States. Yet it happened, most surprisingly, in a positive portrayal of one thin slice of Trump loyalists—veterans of recent foreign wars. Medea reports on a conversation with such a veteran on a train out West, and was impressed that he felt Clinton much more likely than Trump to get Americans killed in a future distant war disconnected from any reasonable defense of the homeland. The New York Times in a front-page feature article reached this same plausible conclusion on the basis of a wider scan of relevant evidence.

 

Here are two disturbing realities worth pondering as we come closer to this most potentially momentous of American presidential elections. While the civilian national security establishment in the United States is outspokenly supportive of the Clinton candidacy, many combat veterans seem to consider Trump less of a warmonger despite his loose talk about crushing the enemies of America. Is it that the national security establishment has entered the arena of partisan politics because it is so worried about Trump’s petulant style and go it alone adventurism or because it finds Clinton’s record of military internationalism strongly to their liking? Or maybe a combination?

 

The second cluster of observations concerns the split between those of left liberal persuasion who reside in America and those living abroad, especially in the Euro-Mediterranean region. Those outside, whether American citizens or not, think of what these bitter rivals are likely to do once ensconced in the White House, and it makes them fearful. Typical is the view of Slavoj Žižek, the celebrity Slovenian public intellectual: he believes that Trump is ‘apparently less dangerous’ than Clinton, a view overwhelmingly held among Russian elites, and not just Putin. In complementary fashion Julian Assange insists, with the weight of Wikileaks on his shoulders, that the American political class will not allow Trump to win. Such opinions are also shared by many expatriates (as well as in country America First isolationists who are all in for Trump) who consider Clinton fully committed to continuing the American global domination project, no matter its costs, with twin ominous dangers of raising tensions with both Russia and China.

 

Those of us on the left who live mainly in the United States see the risks and dangers differently. We are more inclined to repudiate unconditionally anyone with Trump’s unsavory views on nuclear weapons, race, women, Muslims, immigrants, climate change, guns, and torture without bothering to look further. And if this is not enough, then Trump’s commitment to appoint justices to the US Supreme Court who embrace a jurisprudence that resembles the approach of the recently deceased arch conservative, Anthony Scalia, lower taxes on the super-rich, and is cavalier about the menaces posed by nuclear weaponry and global warming, is more than enough to turn many, including most disappointed Sanders’ enthusiasts, into reluctant Clinton supporters. Additionally, those with Wall Street portfolios also have reasonable fears that Trump’s rejection of trade agreements and commitments to scrap existing arrangements and negotiate better deals with China and others, as well as make countries being defended by American military power pay their fair share will lead to an unraveling of the world economy, collapsing stock markets, and a return of protectionist policies leading to a new economic downturn reviving grim memories of ‘beggar thy neighbor’ trade wars and the Great Depression of the 1930s, which also operated as one incubator of the rise of fascism. Trumpism might also destabilize security arrangements to such an extent that several states will go all out to acquire their own stockpile of nuclear weapons, and a series of regional nuclear arms races ensue.

 

We learn from this recital of competing fears, what has always been implicit, but now becomes apparent, that the United States is a global Behemoth whose missteps have for decades harmed the wellbeing of peoples around the world. For this reason, continuity with the past tends not to be viewed favorably by many foreign progressive observers, especially the projection of American military power throughout the planet. Trump for all his flaws is perceived as embodying a crucial discontinuity, and this alone makes him attractive for the very same reasons that Clinton appeals to many mainstream Republican and neocon foreign policy analysts. Additionally, Clinton is seen domestically as less of an uncertain quantity. She is predictable and stable, which explains the overwhelming support she receives from the American political class, including the media, Beltway think tanks, Silicon Valley, liberal centers of learning, and much of the military industrial complex.

 

Even though my months spent in Turkey each year have made me a partial expatriate, I still regard the political choices primarily from an insider’s perspective. This helps me justify to myself why I am a reluctant supporter of Clinton, which in the end strikes me as a clear choice, which would hold up even internationally if properly appraised. Although it is naïve to expect that Clinton has learned to be more cautious about the use of American military power on the basis of past failures of regime-changing interventions and muscular geopolitics, it feels grotesquely naïve to trust Trump with the ‘nuclear football,’ as well as to risk a mighty economic crash or the dire consequences of neglecting climate change (a hoax according to Trump), which if any materializes, would be catastrophic far beyond the borders of the United States, and as usual in such circumstances deliver the most crushing blows to the poorest and most vulnerable among us here at home and abroad.

 

One aspect of the conventional wisdom is to say that Clinton has experience that shows she can get things done. In contrast, Trump is almost proud of his lack of experience, and the prospect of his twisting Congressional arms to reach a compromise in support of his policy initiatives seems like what in American football talk is called ‘a hail Mary.’ Yet reflecting on this prospect the contrast may not be so clear. After all Clinton as president will almost certainly face a Republican dominated Congress determined to nullify her presidency by all means at its disposal. Trump as winner, which at present remains an improbable outcome, would enjoy a tactically sympathetic Congress controlled by Republicans, who despite themselves being sharply divided, would probably join with centrist Democrats to be more legislatively effective than a Clinton presidency.

 

What is most deeply worrisome about the Trump candidacy, win or lose, is the degree to which it has empowered a hitherto relatively dormant proto-fascist underclass, which for its own reasons of alienation had long been boycotting mainstream politics (at least since Reagan), although gradually building a populist base during the last decade via the extremist Tea Party. Trump now has a movement at his disposal that can create havoc either as the mobilized base of an extremist leadership or as the militant vortex of a disruptive opposition that could pose a threat to the future of the republic, especially if mega-terrorist incidents on a 9/11 scale were to happen in the West, and especially within the United States, or economic hard times recur.

 

To the extent I equivocated earlier in this electoral cycle, it was to consider seriously giving my vote to the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein. I think third party candidates have every right to seek as widespread support as they can gain, and that existing rules restricting their participation in national debates should be relaxed to allow their voices to be heard nationally. This would make such political alternative more competitive with the big money machines that the two major parties have become, and create a live possibility of candidates whose program and character can be affirmed, freeing persons like myself from the demoralizing dilemma of voting for the lesser of evils. If American democracy is going to be strengthened it must begin to give the citizenry political alternatives that resonate with our ‘better angels.’

 

I admit voting for Ralph Nader back in 2000 when it seems that Nader’s votes in Florida swung the election to George W. Bush with some help from the Supreme Court. Few strangely cast blame on the 300,000 or so Democrats who voted for Bush in that same Florida election, and were hence a much larger factor in explaining the outcome. Liberals are scornful of those who voted for Nader, while giving a pass to their more wayward fellow Democrats, perhaps partially forgiven because at least they didn’t ‘waste’ their vote.

 

My vote for Nader represented a rejection of the lesser of evils argument. I was also influenced by my perception back then of Al Gore as militarist and unapologetic champion of neoliberal globalization, making Nader the only candidate to express views that I could endorse in good faith. In retrospect, I did underestimate the leverage of neoconservative forces surrounding Bush, and wanting, partly on Israel’s behalf, to restructure the Middle East by what became euphemistically described as ‘democracy promotion’ but can be more realistically described as forcible ‘regime change.’ It was the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that gave the Bush presidency a political climate within which to pursue this disastrous neocon program in the Middle East, centering on the attack and occupation of Iraq starting in 2003, and undoubtedly a primary cause of much of the suffering and turmoil that now afflicts the region as a whole. It is reasonable to believe that Gore would have responded similarly to 9/11 with respect to Afghanistan and the tightening of homeland security, but likely would have acted more prudently in the Middle East, although even this is far from a certainty.

 

Perhaps, I can end by taking note that American presidential elections generally, and this one in particular, should be understood as a type of two-level political exercise. On its primary level, the election is treated by both sides as inward looking, and determined by which side is most persuasive with voters on domestic policy issues. This domestic focus has itself become quite problematic, affected by Republican efforts at ‘voter suppression’ (ways to deny the vote to African Americans and Hispanics), by relentless fundraising favoring the priorities of the most wealthy, and by a variety of ways to manipulate results in the few key ‘battleground states’ that determine which side wins enough electoral college votes to gain the office of the presidency. For the sake of balanced perspective, it should be acknowledged that there have been serious infringements on the proper exercise of the right to vote ever since the United States became a republic.

 

Then there is the secondary level of this American electoral process where people around the globe view American elections as directly affecting and threatening their lives in a variety of tangible ways. These people situated in various parts of the world are victimized (or benefitted) by the American global state but are disenfranchised by being denied any voice, much less a vote. From the primary level, Russian efforts to meddle in American elections are totally unacceptable, but viewed from the secondary level, are completely understandable. Putin is not irresponsible to believe that vital Russian interests are at stake, and that Trump is less likely than Clinton to engage in inflammatory confrontations. From a nationalist perspective, Trump’s possible encouragement of Putin’s concerns seems treasonous; from a global perspective, Russia is acting prudently by acting nonviolently to avoid an electoral outcome in the United States that could have grave consequences for its future wellbeing, and for that matter, so is Julian Assange and Wikileaks. 

 

In this respect, there is a real erosion of global sovereignty in the sense of self-determination that results from this non-territorial salience attributed to the effects of an American presidential election. For a truly legitimate political order of global scope, we need to begin thinking of how to construct a global democracy that is responsive to the multiple experiences of political, economic, and cultural globalization and facilitates some form of legitimating univesal participation in the governing process.

 

To aspire to such an end presupposes the ethos of ‘citizen pilgrims,’ those who transcend national identities in their journey toward a promised land of peaceful co-existence, equitable distribution of material goods, ecological vigilance and sensitivity, a culture of inclusive human rights, and above all, enhanced and variegated spirituality. It may sound utopian, and it is. I believe we are reaching a biopolitical threshold that increasingly equates prospects for human survival with the achievement of an eco-political utopia. This presupposes that utopianism must soon become the new realism of a politics dedicated to a benign human future.  

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On (Not) Loving Henry Kissinger

21 May

On (Not) Loving Henry Kissinger

 

There is an irony that would be amusing if it was not depressing about news that Donald Trump has been courting the 92-year old foreign policy sorcerer Henry Kissinger. Of course, the irony is that earlier in the presidential campaign Hilary Clinton proudly claimed Kissinger as ‘a friend,’ and acknowledged that he “relied on his counsel” while she served as Obama’s Secretary of State between 2009-2013. It is indeed strange that the only point of public convergence between free-swinging Trump and war-mongering Clinton should be these ritual shows of deference to the most scandalous foreign policy figure of the past century.

 

Kissinger should not be underestimated as an international personality with a sorcerer’s dark gifts. After all, he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 for his perverse role in Vietnam diplomacy. Kissinger had supported the war from its inception and was known as a strong proponent of the despicable ‘Christmas bombing’ of North Vietnam. He had earlier joined with Nixon in secretly extending the Vietnam War to Cambodia, incidentally without Congressional knowledge, much less authorization. This led to the total destabilization and devastation of a country that had successfully maintained its neutrality for the prior decade. It also generated the genocidal takeover by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s resulting in the death of a third of the Cambodian population. It was notable that the Nobel had been jointly awarded to Luc Duc Tho, Kissinger’s counterpart in the negotiations, who exhibited his dignity by declining the prize, while Kissinger as shameless as ever, accepted and had an assistant deliver his acceptance speech because he was too busy to attend. Significantly, for the first time, two members of the Nobel Selection Committee resigned their position in disgust.

 

The more familiar, and more damning allegation against Kissinger, is his association with criminal violations of international law. These are convincingly set forth in Christopher Hitchens The Trial of Henry Kissinger (2001). Hitchens informed readers that he “confined himself to the identifiable crimes that can and should be placed on a proper bill of indictment.” He omitted others. Hitchens lists six major crimes of Kissinger:

            “1. The deliberate mass killing of civilian population in Indochina.

  1. Deliberate collusion in mass murder, and later in assassination in         Bangla Desh.
  2. The personal suborning and planning of murder, of a senior constitutional officer in a democratic nation—Chile—with which the United States was not at war.
  3. Personal involvement in a plan to murder the head of state in the democratic nation of Cyprus.
  4. The incitement and enabling of genocide in East Timor.
  5. Personal involvement in a plan to kidnap and murder a journalist living in Washington, DC.”

Whether the evidence available would support a conviction in an international tribunal is far from certain, but Kissinger’s association and approval of these unlawful and inhumane policies, and many others, is clear beyond reasonable doubt.

 

In some respects as damaging as these allegations of complicity in war crimes is, it is not the only reason to question Kissinger’s credentials as guru par excellence. Kissinger shares with Hilary Clinton a record of bad judgments, supporting some foreign policy initiatives that would be disastrous if enacted

and others that failed while inflicting great suffering on a foreign civilian population. In his most recent book, World Order published in 2014, Kissinger makes a point of defending his support of George W. Bush’s foreign policy with specific reference to the war of aggression undertaken in 2003. In his words, “I supported the decision to undertake regime change in Iraq..I want to express here my continuing respect and personal affection for President George W. Bush, who guided America with courage, dignity, and conviction in an unsteady time. His objectives and dedication honored his country even when in some cases they proved unattainable within the American political cycle.” [pp. 324-325] One would have hoped that such an encomium to the internationally least successful U.S. president would be a red flag for those presidential candidates turning to Kissinger for guidance, but such is his lofty reputation, that no amount of crimes or errors of judgment can diminish his public stature.

 

Kissinger first attracted widespread public attention with a book that encouraged relying on nuclear weapons in a limited war scenario in Europe, insisting that the United States could prudently confront the Soviet Union without inviting an attack on its homeland. [Nucelar Weapons and Foreign Policy (1967). As already indirectly suggested, he supported the Vietnam War, the anti-Allende coup in Chile, Indonesian genocidal efforts to deny independence to East Timor, and many other dubious foreign policy undertakings that turned out badly, even from his own professed realist perspective.

 

It is true that Kissinger has a grasp of the history of diplomacy that impresses ordinary politicians such as Trump and Clinton. True, also, he rode the crest of the wave with respect to the diplomatic opening to China in 1972 and pursued with impressive energy the negotiation of ceasefire arrangements between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Syria after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. As well, TIME magazine had a cover featuring Kissinger dressed as superman, dubbing their hero as ‘super-K.’ There is, in this sense, no doubt that Kissinger has been a master as refurbishing his tarnished reputation over the course of decades.

 

Yet fairly considered, whether from a normative or strategic outlook, I would have hoped that Kissinger should be viewed as ‘discredited’ rather than as the most revered repository of foreign policy wisdom in this nation. Bernie Sanders struck the proper note when he said “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend.” And when queried by Clinton as to who he would heed, Sanders responded, “I will not take advice from Henry Kissinger.” In contrast, the words of Hilary Clinton confirm her affinity for the man: “He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.” In fairness she did qualify this show of deference with these words: “[t]hough we have often seen the world and some of our challenges quite differently, and advocated different responses now and in the past….” This was the only saving grace in her otherwise gushing review of Kissinger’s World Order (2014) published in the Washington Post.

 

Let me offer a final comment on this shared adulation of Kissinger as the éminence grise of American foreign policy by the two likely candidates for the presidency. It epitomizes and helps explain the banality of the political discourse that has dominated the primary phases of the presidential campaign. It is hardly surprising that during this time dark clouds of despair hang heavy in the skies above the American body politic. Before either presidential hopeful even walks into the Oval Office both Trump and Clinton are viewed unfavorably by over half of all Americans, and regarded with a mixture of dismay, fear, and shock by political leaders and their publics around the world. To show obeisance to Kissinger’s wisdom and wizardry is thus emblematic of the paucity of mainstream American political imagination, and should worry all who care about the future of the country and the world.

 

 

Two Ways of Looking at the Race for the American Presidency

12 Mar

[Prefatory Note: This is a rewritten and partially modified version of what posted to hastily yesterday.]

 

#1: as an incredibly dumbing down of the political process, turning the presidential campaigns for the nomination as heavily financed shadow shows, hiding special interests and money management, all about selling the candidate by boast and bluster;

 

#2: as pre-revolutionary ferment, mobilizing the young, and confronting the established order, finally, with non-establishment choices between the radical right of Trump & Cruz and the moderate social democratic left of Sanders.

 

This tedious struggle for political prominence and historical name recognition is being played out against a backdrop of the three pillars of America’s global role: the Pentagon, Wall Street, and Israel. No candidate has managed to shake the pillars, although this time around Sanders has at least launched a genuine attack on the Wall Street pillar, and Trump has gestured toward what might turn out to be a mild push against the Israel pillar. This alone makes Sanders and Trump the first outsiders to compete seriously for a mainstream run at the White House. Of course, since Sanders has done so much better than expected, Clinton has taken to making some noises as if she too is ready to take on Wall Street, but as the unreleased transcripts of her mercenary talks at Goldman, Sachs undoubtedly confirm, no one think she means it, and she doesn’t; this is her way of harmlessly sparring with the man from Vermont until she locks up the machine-driven nomination, and then we might get a hint of the real Hilary, that is, unless she worries about alienating the Sanders’ supporters when election time comes in November.

 Torquemada

When we look at the candidates from a Hollywood central casting point of view, we have to wonder who is running the show, especially on the Republican side. Senator Ted Cruz appears to be a credible reincarnation of Tomás de Torquemada, Grand Inquisitor of Spain (1484-1498), grimly ready to deal harshly with the infidels whether within the country or without. Like Torquemada he is sincere, personally austere, and reflective of God’s will. He also seems to have an incidental fondness for ‘carpet bombing,’ and all out war with ‘the enemies’ of the United States wherever they might be in the world, and looks to Netanyahu as the sort of leader he would like to be.

Ted_Cruz,_official_portrait,_113th_Congress 

Then there is Marco Rubio snapping at the Cruz and Trump heals as if a scrappy dog seeking an evening meal. Rubio reminds one of a high school debating champion, articulate and self-assured, yet so lacking in political gravitas as to be irrelevant.

 And I almost forgot John Kasich that redoubtable former governor of Ohio who repeatedly tells his audience in a conversational monotone that he has already solved all of America’s problems in microcosm while he brilliantly managed the public life of Ohio from the state capital in Columbus. He pledges to do the same for America as a whole once in Washington, and puts himself forward as the only candidate with the right experience and track record to take up residence in the White House. It is not surprising that there is a tendency to forget Kasich as he has so far managed to stay on board the train only because he has become the default candidate of that endangered species, ‘moderate Republicans.’

 Trump 2Trump

Then there is Donald Trump who, whatever else, is hardly in danger of being forgotten. He is leading the pack into some wild terrain of which he seems only dimly aware. Trump’s idea of how to do international politics boils down to hard driving real estate deal making backed by an larger, all powerful military machine and tax breaks for American multinationals. Without exhibiting much command of the political domain Trump offers some mildly encouraging, even sensible, takeaways that are almost lost in the bigoted noise—his skepticism about regime-changing interventions, opposition to neoliberal international trade agreements, and even casting a smidgeon of doubt on the special relationship with Israel. Of course, it is not these sensible asides but the Trump thunder that excites his followers and energizes his crowds. He wins his mass following by demonizing Muslims and Latinos, promising to end all Muslim immigration, deport 11 million illegals, and build that high wall along the Mexican border, and then send the bill to the Mexican Government, and, get this, restore American military might. His reputation for repudiating what liberals espouse as ‘politically correct’ earns him a reputation for talking right-wing nonsense to power, and being perceived by his followers as deliciously politically incorrect. The Trump appeal is based totally on the politics of emotion, tapping into resentments, prejudices, and racism, unleashing a venomous tide of proto-fascist activism that should be, but isn’t yet, scaring Americans as much as it seems to be frightening and startling the rest of the world.

 th

The Democrats seem to be doing a little bit better, but only in comparison to the current crop of Republican alternatives.Hilary Clinton, running needlessly scared as frontrunner, seems to have that ‘deer in the headlights’ look every time her ‘core beliefs’ are probed or challenged. The unclassified, yet disclosed, truth, is that she doesn’t seem to have any, or at least not yet. Or maybe she had, but lost track, and now can’t find them or lost them along the way or will rediscover them if necessary. Ever an ambitious opportunist par excellence, it seems that her least laundered credential is her steadfast realization that the three pillars are absolutes in American politics, maybe better represented as ‘sacred cows.’

 

Hence, Hilary is fully credible when promising to improve upon current U.S. relations with Israel and can be trusted never to let down either the Pentagon or Wall Street, or to go wobbly when given the opportunity to champion a new military intervention. What more could the Democratic Party establishment want from a candidate, and this is the point that has seemed to resonate so strongly with the so-called superdelegates (elected officials and party luminaries who can vote for whomever they wish, neither being selected by voters or pledged to a particular candidate) who mostly stand shoulder to shoulder with Clinton and virtually extinguish the slight hopes of Sanders however many Michigan style upsets he manages to pull off.

 

And then there is Bernie Sanders, as genuine a proponent of a decent American society as the political system has produced since FDR, and maybe more so, but he only knows how to carry melodies with only a single note, and while it is a high note, pushing hard against the Wall Street pillar, it exhibits too narrow a grasp of the American political challenge to make him qualified to lead the first global state in human history. His views on the other two pillars seem unthreatening to the mainstream, he goes along, perhaps reluctantly at the margins, seeming to accept the defense budget except some quibbles, as well as existing alliances and alignments, and raises no awkward questions about continuing unconditional support for Israel. Of course, shackling Wall Street while universalizing health care and providing free public education at college levels would give the country a vital breath of free air, but given the U.S. global role, it is not enough to validate the claim of delivering ‘a social revolution.’

 

Let’s ask where all of this leads? The probable short term result is probably Trump versus Clinton, with either Trump navigating the ship of state through turbulent waters fraught with danger and unpredictability or Clinton sailing full speed ahead as if Barack Obama was still serving as the real president, but somehow has grown more macho in the process of aging. Either outcome is, of course, problematic. If Trump, the beast of fascism slouches ever closer to Washington; if Clinton, the gods of war will be dancing through the night.

 

There are a few silver linings that may be merely wishful thinking. It is possible that the Republican Party will implode, or reemerge for what it is becoming in any event, that is, the party of discontent and revenge, shedding its pedigree as the sedate sanctuary of privilege and big business. For the Democrats, the Sanders defeat might give birth to a break with party politics on the part of its young and progressive contingent, who leave discontented, adopting an anti-three pillars agenda that expands upon what Bernie so resolutely initiated. It is this possibility that seems plausible given the extraordinary strength of Sanders’ support among voters 18-25 who will be bound to feel more bitterly frustrated than ever by the dynamics of ‘normal politics.’ The country can again become hopeful about the future if such a progressive vision of a better America prevails among the young and is sustained by a strong consensus giving rise to a militant nonviolent movement for drastic change at home and abroad.

Of course, I may be wrong, my imagination remains trapped in what now seems most likely. It is possible that Trump will be stopped and Sanders will prevail, or that some kind of third party will be insinuated in the political process to save the established order from shipwreck. If it happens, then the  shape of the future will be different from what is conjectured here, but I doubt that I will have to eat many of these words. 

At another level, the political soap opera that seems to be entrancing the American people at present can be seen as an epic battle between ‘the politics of emotion’ (Trump), ‘the politics of sentiment and values’ (Sanders), and ‘the politics of reason and knowledge’ (as variously represented by Clinton, Cruz, Kasich, and Rubio).